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Borneo and Sumatra are two of the most bio-diverse regions of the world, yet they
have the longest list of endangered species. This list includes the magnificent orangutan. These two South-East Asian islands are extremely rich in life, containing around 20,000 flowering plant species, 3,000 tree species, 300,000 animal species and thousands more being discovered each year. Despite this amazing biodiversity and delicate web of species, an area the size of 300 football fields of rainforest is cleared each hour in Indonesia and Malaysia to make way for the production of one vegetable oil. That's 6 football fields destroyed each minute. This vegetable oil is called palm oil, and is found in hundreds of the everyday products, from baked goods and confectionery, to cosmetics and cleaning agents...
many of which you buy in your weekly shopping.
Due to the large international demand for palm oil, palm oil plantations are rapidly replacing the rainforest habitat of the critically endangered orangutan; with over 90% of their habitat already destroyed in the last 20 years. There are various methods that are undertaken when it comes to deforestation for the development of palm oil, but typically, the process is as follows; the Indonesian or Malaysian Government will first sell the land to wealthy foreigners owning palm oil companies and issue them a palm oil concession. The forest is logged of all its precious hardwood timber, which can include; teak, ironwood, ebony, mahogany, sandalwood and over 70 other valuable species. The remaining trees, shrubs and debris are then set fire to. The land is cleared and flattened using heavy machinery to make way for rows and rows of oil palms. Indigenous locals are often employed by the plantation owners, usually the people who have been displaced from the land to create the plantation, where they plant and maintain the oil palm trees under very risky, dangerous conditions, using many unsafe chemicals, all for very little pay.
A very important thing to remember is that the oil palm plantation will only last for approximately 20 to 50 years before then the soil is completely drained of its vital nutrients and the palm trees too matured to produce palm fruit, which is why palm oil is very much a short-term commodity, and not a long-term sustainable solution.
Orangutans are some of our closest relatives, sharing approximately 97% of their DNA with humans. Orangutan means 'Person of the jungle' in the Indonesian language. It is estimated that 6 to 12 of these 'jungle people' are killed each day for palm oil. These gentle creatures are either killed in the deforestation process, when they wander into a palm oil plantation looking for food, or in the illegal pet trade after they've been captured and kept as pets in extremely poor conditions and provided with extremely poor nutrition.
Orangutans are considered to be pests by the palm oil industry. In the deforestation process, orangutans are often run over by logging machinery, beaten to death, buried alive or set on fire. Orangutans that wander into palm oil plantations are considered to be agricultural pest, because they have the potential to damage oil palm crops. In order to get rid of them, a bounty is often put on the orangutan's head. If a female orangutan is found carrying a baby, the mother will be killed and the baby taken and kept as a pet, or sold on the illegal pet trade and in some cases shipped overseas, often within Asia, or sometimes countries like the United States.
These gentle, inquisitive animals are also captured and used in the entertainment industry, where they are locked away and beaten in Asian tourist parks and circuses in order to learn tricks for human entertainment and live lives of humiliation and exploitation. They can also be used in films and tevevision adverts all over the world. In some cases, the absolute unthinkable is done to female orangutans - they are captured and used in Indonesian brothels as prostitutes; where they are tied down and raped on a daily basis.
Government data has shown that over 50,000 orangutans have already died as a result of deforestation due to palm oil in the last two decades. Experts say that if this pattern of destruction and exploitation continues, these intelligent acrobats of the jungle will be extinct in the wild within 3 to 12 years (as early as 2016). It is also thought that most of their jungle habitat will be completely gone within the next 20 years.
There is only a 1 chromosome difference between orangutans and humans. They are the largest tree-dwelling mammal on the planet and with their amazing intellect, have the ability to reason and think; along with almost all other human feelings and emotions. They can undo bolts, screws, knots and even pick locks. An orangutan named Chentek, at Atlanta Zoo in the US, was taught American sign language as an infant and has a vocabulary of over 500 words! These bright, fellow-apes also have their own culture.
Leif Cocks, an orangutan keeper at Perth Zoo, and founder & president of the Australian Orangutan Project, says:
"Many people believe that the most intelligent great apes are chimpanzees, the bonobo and then the gorillas, this may be because these species are more similar to humans, genetically. I have never come across an experienced ape keeper who has worked closely with all great ape species and does not agree that orangutans are by far the most intelligent."
The following are two aphorisms often stated by primate keepers:
"Give a screwdriver to a chimpanzee and it will throw it at another chimpanzee. Give a screwdriver to a gorilla and it will use it to scratch itself. Give a screwdriver to an orangutan and it will escape!"
"Give ten problems to a chimpanzee and it will solve six of the problems in 30 minutes and never solve the other four. Give ten problems to an orangutan and it will take one week, but will solve all ten problems."
Orangutans are also a vital part of the rainforest ecosystem in South-East Asia. They are a keystone species. For example, orangutans help spread many tree seeds; many of which can only germinate once they have passed through the gut of an orangutan. These beautiful apes are vital in order to preserve the delicate ecosystems of Borneo and Sumatra and maintain the rich bio-diversity of Fauna and Flora in these dense jungles.
Orangutans cannot live without the rainforest, and the rainforest cannot live without orangutans.
Everything in an ecosystem is connected. Picture it as if each species is a 'cog' in the 'ecosystem machine'. We are currently pulling out thousands of cogs each year from the ecosystem machine of Borneo and Sumatra. Species like the orangutan are keystone species, meaning that if their cog is removed from the system, many, many other cogs will stop functioning as well. For example, as mentioned above, many tree species can only germinate once passed through the gut of an orangutan; so if the orangutan is removed from the ecosystem, so are those tree species. And there may be many bird, insect or monkey species that rely on those trees as a main food source, so those cogs will also be removed from the system.
Therefore, the 'ecosystem machine' of Borneo and Sumatra will become so disconnected it will eventually become non-existant. This will have catastrophic impacts on other ecosystems belonging to other regions of the world. This will in tern upset the climate, change global weather patterns and increase the chances of natural disasters.
Around 50 million tons of palm oil is produced annually; with almost all of that being non-sustainable palm oil, that replaces millions of hectares of dense, bio-diverse rainforest.
Palm oil is mainly used in foods, cosmetics and cleaning agents, but it can also be found in some bio-fuels. This fatty vegetable oil is mixed with a number of other fuels and liquids to create an 'Eco-Friendly' bio-fuel. This 'Eco-Friendly' bio-fuel has already become mandatory in numerous countries including Malaysia, where 5% of all fuel must contain palm oil, and if it continues to be voted into petrol stations around the world, the future for our orange primate cousins and their rainforest homes will be very bleak.
In supermarkets in Australia, New Zealand, the United States, United Kingdom and many European countries, 50% of all baked goods, confectionery, spreads, body products, cosmetics, cleaning agents, air fresheners and sometimes even paint and printer ink contain palm oil, and the average first-world citizen consumes at least 10kg of palm oil each year. These statistics dramatically increase with countries that span across Asia. Fact is, a large percentage of products in your household will contain palm oil, and almost anything that contains a high level of saturated fat will have palm oil in it (except for some dairy products, which gain their saturated fat from full cream milk).
However, you often don't know if products you are buying contribute to this detrimental destruction. You see, there are no laws on the mandatory labeling of palm oil in most countries, so palm oil is often hidden under the name of 'vegetable oil' or over 170 other names. Click here for more information on some of the names palm oil is labeled under - 'Palm Oil' page. This means that consumers are blinded as to which products they buy are contributing the destruction of our natural world and its inhabitants.
This widely-used vegetable oil is also very high in saturated fat, therefore a potential health risk. Due to its high saturated fat content, palm oil promotes heart disease, increases cholesterol level, raises blood pressure, therefore a key contributing factor to obesity. These four health issues are the main causes of one of the world's biggest killers: cardiovascular disease (also known as heart disease). This extremely common disease claims one life every two seconds. Palm oil is also high in Omega 6 fatty acid, which is associated with arthritis, inflammation, and even breast and prostate cancer.
Some people argue that we need palm oil in this day and age in order to produce certain foods and products. But what about 30 years ago? Back then, palm oil was virtually non-existent in most supermarkets in the first-world, so why is there such a high demand for it now? Unhealthy, processed foods, chemicals to add to cleaning products, and fuel. We don't need palm oil. Alternatives to palm oil include sunflower oil, hemp seed oil, cotton-seed oil and coconut oil, but unfortunately none as cheap or efficient, which is why companies are reluctant to switch.
There is often controversy surrounding the benefits of palm oil plantations in Indonesian and Malaysia when referring to the indigenous communities. Some state that palm oil is highly beneficial to the native people and provides vast employment among local communities, which is vital in order for indigenous people to earn money for basic food and medical supplies. On the other hand, many argue that the plantations destroy the rainforest land that the local people depend on, therefore giving them no choice but to become employed as plantation workers, operating under extremely dangerous conditions and barely earning enough money to survive.
It is a very sensitive and controversial topic. The truth is that the situation can vary depending on the specific circumstances and that either of these theories could apply. For those communities that are still dependent on the rainforest, evicting them from their land is taking them away from the life source that they have lived off of for the past 50,000 years. Destroying the forest is destroying the livelihood and culture of these unique people. An example of this is shown in a documentary where Din Perulak, the Chief of Sumatran tribe "Orang Rimba Sumatra" says:
"I am so unhappy about these gigantic new oil palm plantations. Our forest which we, Orang Rimba, have gathered fruit, which has sustained us, has completely disappeared. There are plantations everywhere. I ask you: how are we supposed to survive when there is no forest anymore?"
To reiterate - there are still many indigenous communities that lose their food and source of medicine once the forest is cleared, and have no choice but to travel to purchase food and medical supplies. This leads to the need of employment to earn money for those supplies, and the biggest source of basic employment in those areas is working for the owners of palm oil plantations. This vicious cycle ultimately takes independent, culturally traditional villages and exposes them to the Western world.
The islands of Borneo and Sumatra are two of the world's last remaining natural gems, gems that the world wants to see. By investing in ecotourism, Indonesia and Malaysia would effectively secure long-term income for their economies, and for their people. This would provide those indigenous peoples who currently rely on deforestation and palm oil with alternative employment that does not involve destroying their homeland. Unfortunately, until these nations stop thinking short-term and start thinking long-term, this is only a vision.
Palm oil production is also having a shocking impact on our planet. The production of this one vegetable oil is not only responsible for polluting rivers and causing land erosion, but when the plantation workers set fire to the remaining trees, shrubs and debris to make way for the oil palms, it produces immense amount of smoke pollution that is toxic to planet earth. This has been found to be the second biggest contributor to greenhouse gas in the world.
Rainforest trees and vegetation filter carbon dioxide out of the air, and in turn, produce clean oxygenated air for us to breathe. This means that in a time when there is more carbon dioxide pollution in the atmosphere than ever (which is partly due to the forest burning in the first place), we need be growing more forest and protecting existing forest in order to filter that carbon dioxide and create clean air for us to breathe. Instead, we are doing the opposite and logging forest at an alarming rate.
This increase in carbon dioxide means a larger impact on global warming; leading to rising sea levels, changing weather patterns and consequently, frequent natural disasters, ice glaciers melting and more species being wiped out.
And it all comes back to preserving the remaining rainforest that remains on planet earth, rather than destroying it for development.
By purchasing products that contain unsustainable palm oil, you are helping destroy ancient, pristine rainforest, wipe out species like the orangutan, and create a large-scale ecological disaster. Think of the consequences next time you do your weekly shopping; the consequences not only for orangutans and other animals, but for us as the human race... for we cannot survive without the rainforests, either. We have a choice, orangutans do not.
"Palm oil is now the greatest threat to the survival of orangutans in the wild."
"It's difficult to describe (deforestation in Borneo). But for me, it's like a man-made tsunami."
"There is no way that something as beautiful & innocent as an orangutan could've ever evolved into man."
Photos: Hardi Baktiantoro & Jean Kern